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Understanding Message Brokers by Jakub Korab

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Chapter 1. Introduction

Intersystem messaging is one of the more poorly understood areas of IT. As a developer or architect you may be intimately familiar with various application frameworks, and database options. It is likely, however, that you have only a passing familiarity with how broker-based messaging technologies work. If you feel this way, don’t worry—you’re in good company.

People typically come into contact with messaging infrastructure in a very limited way. It is not uncommon to be pointed at a system that was set up a long time ago, or to download a distribution from the internet, drop it into a production-like environment, and start writing code against it. Once the infrastructure is pushed to production, the results can be mixed: message loss on failure, distribution not working the way you had expected, or brokers “hanging” your producers or not distributing messages to your consumers.

Does this sound in any way familiar?

A common scenario is that your messaging code will work fine—for a while. Until it does not. This period lulls many into a false sense of security, which leads to more code being written while holding on to misconceptions about fundamental behavior of the technology. When things start to go wrong you are left facing an uncomfortable truth: that you did not really understand the underlying behavior of the product or the trade-offs its authors chose to make, such as performance versus reliability, or transactionality versus horizontal scalability.

Without a high-level understanding of how brokers work, people make seemingly sensible assertions about their messaging systems such as:

  • The system will never lose messages

  • Messages will be processed in order

  • Adding consumers will make the system go faster

  • Messages will be delivered exactly once

Unfortunately, some of the above statements are based on assumptions that are applicable only in certain circumstances, while others are just incorrect.

This book will teach you how to reason about broker-based messaging systems by comparing and contrasting two popular broker technologies: Apache ActiveMQ and Apache Kafka. It will outline the use cases and design drivers that led to their developers taking very different approaches to the same domain—the exchange of messages between systems with a broker intermediary. We will go into these technologies from the ground up, and highlight the impacts of various design choices along the way. You will come away with a high-level understanding of both products, an understanding of how they should and should not be used, and an appreciation of what to look out for when considering other messaging technologies in the future.

Before we begin, let’s go all the way back to basics.

What Is a Messaging System, and Why Do We Need One?

In order for two applications to communicate with each other, they must first define an interface. Defining this interface involves picking a transport or protocol, such as HTTP, MQTT, or SMTP, and agreeing on the shape of the messages to be exchanged between the two systems. This may be through a strict process, such as by defining an XML schema for an expense claim message payload, or it may be much less formal, for example, an agreement between two developers that some part of an HTTP request will contain a customer ID.

As long as the two systems agree on the shape of those messages and the way in which they will send the messages to each other, it is then possible for them to communicate with each other without concern for how the other system is implemented. The internals of those systems, such as the programming language or the application frameworks used, can vary over time. As long as the contract itself is maintained, then communication can continue with no change from the other side. The two systems are effectively decoupled by that interface.

Messaging systems typically involve the introduction of an intermediary between the two systems that are communicating in order to further decouple the sender from the receiver or receivers. In doing so, the messaging system allows a sender to send a message without knowing where the receiver is, whether it is active, or indeed how many instances of them there are.

Let’s consider a couple of analogies of the types of problems that a messaging system addresses and introduce some basic terms.

Point-to-Point

Alexandra walks into the post office to send a parcel to Adam. She walks up to the counter and hands the teller the parcel. The teller places the parcel behind the counter and gives Alexandra a receipt. Adam does not need to be at home at the moment that the parcel is sent. Alexandra trusts that the parcel will be delivered to Adam at some point in the future, and is free to carry on with the rest of her day. At some point later, Adam receives the parcel.

This is an example of the point-to-point messaging domain. The post office here acts as a distribution mechanism for parcels, guaranteeing that each parcel will be delivered once. Using the post office separates the act of sending a parcel from the delivery of the parcel.

In classical messaging systems, the point-to-point domain is implemented through queues. A queue acts as a first in, first out (FIFO) buffer to which one or more consumers can subscribe. Each message is delivered to only one of the subscribed consumers. Queues will typically attempt to distribute the messages fairly among the consumers. Only one consumer will receive a given message.

Queues are termed as being durable. Durability is a quality of service that guarantees that the messaging system will retain messages in the absence of any active subscribers until a consumer next subscribes to the queue to take delivery of them.

Durability is often confused with persistence, and while the two terms come across as interchangeable, they serve different functions. Persistence determines whether a messaging system writes the message to some form of storage between receiving and dispatching it to a consumer. Messages sent to a queue may or may not be persistent.

Point-to-point messaging is used when the use case calls for a message to be acted upon once only. Examples of this include depositing funds into an account or fulfilling a shipping order. We will discuss later on why the messaging system in itself is incapable of providing once-only delivery and why queues can at best provide an at-least-once delivery guarantee.

Publish-Subscribe

Gabriella dials in to a conference call. While she is connected, she hears everything that the speaker is saying, along with the rest of the call participants. When she disconnects, she misses out on what is said. On reconnecting, she continues to hear what is being said.

This is an example of the publish-subscribe messaging domain. The conference call acts as a broadcast mechanism. The person speaking does not care how many people are currently dialed into the call—the system guarantees that anyone who is currently dialed in will hear what is being said.

In classical messaging systems, the publish-subscribe messaging domain is implemented through topics. A topic provides the same sort of broadcast facility as the conference call mechanism. When a message is sent into a topic, it is distributed to all subscribed consumers.

Topics are typically nondurable. Much like the listener who does not hear what is said on the conference call when she disconnects, topic subscribers miss any messages that are sent while they are offline. For this reason, it can be said that topics provide an at-most-once delivery guarantee for each consumer.

Publish-subscribe messaging is typically used when messages are informational in nature and the loss of a single message is not particularly significant. For example, a topic might transmit temperature readings from a group of sensors once every second. A system that subscribes to the topic that is interested in the current temperature will not be concerned if it misses a message—another will arrive shortly.

Hybrid Models

A store’s website places order messages onto a message “queue.” A fulfilment system is the primary consumer of those messages. In addition, an auditing system needs to have copies of these order messages for tracking later on. Both systems cannot miss messages, even if the systems themselves are unavailable for some time. The website should not be aware of the other systems.

Use cases often call for a hybrid of publish-subscribe and point-to-point messaging, such as when multiple systems each want a copy of a message and require both durability and persistence to prevent message loss.

These cases call for a destination (the general term for queues and topics) that distributes messages much like a topic, such that each message is sent to a distinct system interested in those messages, but where each system can define multiple consumers that consume the inbound messages, much like a queue. The consumption type in this case is once-per-interested-party. These hybrid destinations frequently require durability, such that if a consumer disconnects, the messages that are sent in the meantime are received once the consumer reconnects.

Hybrid models are not new and can be addressed in most messaging systems, including both ActiveMQ (via virtual or composite destinations, which compose topics and queues) and Kafka (implicitly, as a fundamental design feature of its destination).

Now that we have some basic terminology and an understanding of why we might want to use a messaging system, let’s jump into the details.

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